San Diego County farmers pleased at changes in water cutback rules

Farmers in Fallbrook, Rainbow and Valley Center get a break from state water cut rules

After a vigorous effort to alert the state water board about what they saw as the unfairness of proposed drought rules, San Diego County farmers were pleased at how the rules were modified.

"They heard us," said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. "We fared very well."

By one count, of the 370 letters sent to the Water Resources Control Board about the proposed cutbacks in water, 145 of them were from San Diego County farmers and officials representing water districts that serve farming areas.

Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, wrote that the rules would prove devastating to farmers. The Valley Center district -- farmers and homeowners -- were targeted for a required 35% reduction or face fines.

Arant asked that San Diego County farmers be given the same consideration as farmers in the Central Valley that were largely exempt from the cutbacks ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to the state's drought.

Under the initial proposal, urban districts serving farmers would face the same level of mandated cutbacks as districts where the predominant use of water is for landscaping and other residential needs.

But with the adjusted rules issued Saturday, the formula was changed to subtract agricultural water from a district's overall water use record.

The change was a boon to farmers in Valley Center, Rainbow and Fallbrook.

"My farmers are going to be very happy," Arant said.

Although overshadowed by the region's reputation as a tourism center, San Diego County has an agricultural economy that in 2013, the last year for which records are complete, had crops worth $1.85 billion, up 6% from 2012.

Some 305,573 acres are under cultivation. The main crops are flowers, avocados, tomatoes and lemons.

The new rules, however, do not cover districts where the overall use is still overwhelmingly residential: Carlsbad, with its flower fields, and Encinitas, with strawberry fields.

In those communities, the local water district may change how it implements the state rules in an effort to provide relief to farmers, Larson said.

In announcing the adjusted formula, Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state board, said the initial failure to give consideration to farmers was an "oversight."

If so, San Diego County farmers were determined to correct that oversight. "We wanted them to know we're here," Larson said.

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